A New Alphabet for the Cinema : the Tragic Irony of Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927)


  • Peter Verstraten



Mots-clés :

historical reconstruction genre, French Impressionism, cinema as music of light, Esperanto of the Eye, Gance´s Napoléon, Dreyer´s La Passion de Jeanne d´Arc


In the present-day period, on the eve of destruction of analogue cinema, there seems to be a remarkable interest in the last gasps of silent film. Encouraged by this fascination, this article delves into an analysis of the highly formally innovative Napoléon, vu par Abel Gance (Abel Gance, 1927). This film will be discussed as an oblique variant within the relatively new genre of the historical reconstruction film in France. Addressing four paradoxes and an irony, the article will examine the tensions between Gance’s attempt to create a historical biopic and his ambition to delineate a new aesthetics of cinema. It will do so, among others, by contrasting Gance’s ideas of both the cinema as a visual Esperanto and as the ‘music of light’ with the theatrical trans-historicity of La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Carl-Theodor Dreyer, 1928), produced as a complement to Napoléon.

Biographie de l'auteur

Peter Verstraten

Peter Verstraten is Assistant Professor of Film and Literary Studies as well as chair of MA Media Studies, track Film and Photographic Studies at Leiden University. Among his key publications are Film Narratology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009) and Shooting Time: Conversations on Cinematography (Rotterdam: Post Editions, 2012), a volume which he co-edited with two directors of photography. Some recent online articles are on Bruno Dumont´s film Hadewijch and another one on the ´cinema of modernist poetic prose´ of both Michelangelo Antonioni and Terrence Malick. In addition to this he also publishes on ´psychoanalysis and film´, on modernist and postmodernist cinema; and on film genres.




Comment citer

Verstraten, P. (2012) « A New Alphabet for the Cinema : the Tragic Irony of Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927) », Relief - Revue Électronique de Littérature Francaise, 6(1), p. 48–65. doi: 10.18352/relief.760.



Articles – dossier thématique